My Kingdom for a Commissioner…

When the government announced it was appointing a commissioner to take over the Southern DHB, it was signalling that enough was enough. The health board is in financial trouble, and there have been questions about its spending decisions and the quality of its management. The government will be hoping that the new commissioner can get in there and sort the mess out.

When Environment Canterbury got itself into bother a few years ago, the government stepped in and appointed commissioners to take over the organisation and get it back on track.

When a school runs into trouble, the government will often appoint a commissioner to run it. There have been numerous instances over the last few years of a financially mismanaged school being taken over by a government appointee.

It’s never an easy thing, appointing a commissioner to take over a troubled and mismanaged public organisation. The people in charge of these bodies are often elected by the public, but sometimes democracy just doesn’t work. Organisations end up being run by incompetents with few financial management skills, conflicts of interest are allowed to run rampant, and there is no proper or transparent process around the making of important decisions. This is the sort of environment that breeds corruption and graft.

So any public organisation running deficits year after year is going to be under the spotlight, especially if it is throwing money at projects of questionable value. If that organisation isn’t even prepared to explain why decisions have been made, then democracy has failed and it may be time for a commissioner to be appointed. If its leaders continue to display contempt towards the people who put them there, then those leaders need to be removed.

That’s why this government needs to appoint a commissioner to run itself.

This organisation has run seven successive budget deficits, and has failed to honour its clear promise to get itself back into surplus this financial year. We can no longer take this organisation’s governing board at its word when it says it has things under control. It said that last year and the year before, and still it is running at a loss.

It’s true that the organisation has been operating in a very challenging environment, and yet for all the promises it has made about being fiscally prudent, it continues to throw public money around like a drunken sailor on shore leave.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment may be the best example of this culture of profligacy and financial recklessness, with its expensive hair straighteners, LED screens and signs, but there are others. How about a costly referendum on an issue nobody seems to care a great deal about, or multi-million dollar roads that make no economic sense? What about the eleven million dollars spent by MFAT on a New York apartment? Or millions thrown at stadiums and yachting events?

But it’s not just mere financial incompetence. This organisation has been challenged to justify why millions of dollars were paid to a Saudi businessman, but every explanation it has attempted has failed. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that ruinously incompetent management is the least of this organisation’s woes. Of greater concern should be the fact that it appears to be in the business of using public money to pay bribes.

If there was ever an organisation that needed a commissioner appointed to it, surely it would be this one. The government needs to move quickly to restore public faith in this failing institution.

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Scott Yorke is a self-confessed left leaning lawyer, who runs a column called Imperator Fish as a hobby.